Mobility fuels next wave of M2M technology adoption

Beth Stackpole

Falling prices and the near ubiquitous availability of wireless communications are paving the way for new machine-to-machine adoption choices in the areas of plant floor production, logistics and field maintenance, elevating the transformational technology to new heights.

While machine-to-machine (M2M) market forecasts vary, experts say they are projecting significant growth, with much of the expansion driven by cheaper sensor, microprocessor and wireless technologies, along with cloud computing and the growing use of smaller devices like smartphones. Mobile technology, in particular, is an important driver of the next wave of M2M adoption, contends Mobeen Khan, executive director of M2M product management for AT&T Business Solutions.

"In terms of the 'Internet of Things,' the biggest opportunity in the next 10 years is around mobility," he said. "The value [around mobility] is its flexibility and the ease of use, since it's available pretty much anywhere, especially in cases where assets are moving."

M2M technology adoption hits the road

Outfitting cars with wireless technologies as part of a connected vehicle strategy to support a range of telematics and remote diagnostic applications is one of the more prominent use cases of wireless M2M technology, experts said. The technology is also being aggressively leveraged in supply chain and logistics applications for asset tracking of pallets and containers during global transport, as well as to monitor temperature on products with a short shelf life, according to Brian Partridge, research vice president for the Boston-based Yankee Group. On the shop floor, wireless M2M technologies are being paired with ruggedized handheld devices to support a variety of monitoring and diagnostic applications, as well as remote troubleshooting and preemptive maintenance, he added.

While the use cases for wireless M2M are many, so too are the different options for wireless connectivity, and currently, experts said, there is little in the way of standardization when it comes to communications protocols. Less-expensive wireless LANs and ZigBee technologies lend themselves well for manufacturing and supply chain applications, while more expensive, wide-area wireless options like cellular and satellite are best suited for fleet management of mobile assets, including ship containers or railroad cars. "There [are] a lot of different options with regard to wireless communications, and it depends on the application and the type of use case," said Dan Murphy, vice president of marketing for Foxboro, Mass.-based Axeda, which sells integrated M2M technology.

For example, if a manufacturer is transporting a high-cost item with a short shelf life and wants to know where it is and at what temperature and humidity, then it makes sense to leverage cellular technology to know the exact conditions as it ships from point A to point B, Murphy explained. "But if you're just shipping a bunch of books and you want to know when they shipped and when they arrived, that's a perfect candidate for RFID [radio frequency identification]," he said.

Making M2M technology adoption seamless

There are other challenges surrounding mobile M2M adoption -- one of the more notable being the lack of an end-to-end solution, according to Michele Pelino, principal analyst for enterprise mobility, infrastructure and operations at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. "M2M solutions are often developed to address specific requirements of a vertical market and to work on a specific device, over specific wireless networks," she explained. "Fleet management or telematics solutions often require national or international reach to address corporate geographic coverage requirements. However, deploying these solutions nationally or internationally is complicated because seamless national and international network coverage is often a challenge."

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The cost structure around wireless connectivity is another hurdle, as traditional cellular pricing models don't hold up in the M2M world. The traditional metric for wireless telecommunications operators is to generate double digit voice and data ARPUs (Average Revenue Per User), transmit megabytes of data, and bill monthly for those services. When it comes to M2M, however, ARPUs are often only a few dollars and are based on small bursts of data transmitted over the network from sensors and monitoring devices in real time, Pelino said.

Nathan George, vice president of technology for Washington, D.C.-based MODUS, a provider of a usage-based insurance solution, noted that until the cost model around wireless connectivity is hammered out, it is difficult to create software based on wireless M2M. "If you're manufacturing monitoring equipment that costs $50,000 or $100,000, and it costs a couple of bucks a month to monitor, it's [a] no-brainer [for] economics to leverage cellular connectivity," he said. "But when you're talking about a $50 device that plugs into a car with a $500 annual premium, it's hard to make the deal happen when you're looking at $60 [per] month just for connectivity."

In recognition of these complexities, wireless vendors are creating packages of value-added services around wireless M2M. AT&T Business Solutions, for example, is making an investment to certify a growing number of devices on its networks and is working with standards bodies to address the lack of common protocols and standards, Khan said. It has also created multiple M2M Centers of Excellence to educate the market on wireless M2M capabilities, he added.

Perhaps the most important effort AT&T and other wireless M2M providers are doing to jumpstart deployments is consolidating a lot of the enabling technologies into a unified platform.

"In any of these solutions, there's more than just wireless connectivity," Khan said. "All the pieces have to work as a seamless solution; otherwise, it's easy to make a proof of concept, but to scale to thousands and thousands of devices and manage that among multiple customers will be a nightmare."

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